Svetlana Fialova

UFOs & River Flows

Today we are sharing an interview with the Slovakian artist Svetlana Fialova, who uses Indian ink to create huge and striking drawings. Although her subject matter is contemporary – she is inspired by UFOs, soap operas, street art – her densely-populated, dreamlike images and the distorted figures within it owe a debt to art history, from Bosch to Holbein. Last year she won the Jerwood Drawing Prize for Apocalypse (My Boyfriend Doesn’t Care), in which a young man, pulling gum from his mouth, is surrounded by scenes from Albrecht Durer’s Apocalypse series.

Svetlana’s impressive CV suggests she’s been pretty busy: born in 1985 she has completed a BA at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Košice, Slovakia; an MA in Prague; and now splits her time between London and Košice while she finishes up her PhD in Bratislava. On top of this she’s contributed work to twenty-five group exhibitions and eight solo shows in cities including Paris, Vienna, Budapest and London. As well as receiving the Jerwood prize, in 2011 she was the finalist for the 2011 Painting of the Year Award and the Art Critics Award of Young Painting in Prague, and was nominated for the Essl Art Award CEE.

Winning the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2013 is a great achievement. What positive effects has it had for you? Do you think it’s important to celebrate art and creativity with prizes like that?

It has drawn some attention to my work…I am also represented by a gallery now (Zahorian&Co in Bratislava). Unfortunately I can’t say I’m able to make my living only doing my stuff though…Yeah I guess the financial part of the awards can help a lot as well as a bit of a promo for the artist that comes with the prize. However I am not a big fan of art prizes, it still feels a bit weird to compete in something so abstract and magical like art. 

You’ve been in further education since 2004: you’ve completed a BA, an MA and you’re finishing up a PhD. Academic settings must work for you: what do they bring to your practice, do you think? And if you hadn’t taken this route, what would you have done?

You get a great support being a PhD student in Slovakia, both financial and academic/theoretical…I felt a bit lost after finishing my MA and wanted to educate myself in philosophy and aesthetics; maybe teach in the future…that’s why I enrolled the PhD degree. I think I am now more aware of the whole context of stuff that I depict in my work…sometimes I also get inspired by some ideas, talks and books I come across at school.

I’ve been fascinated by the world of spying, CIA, agents and detectives since I was a kid. I used to think there was an alternative world built and hidden somewhere under the ground, like a top secret concrete labyrinth with scientists and the brightest minds of the world working on supernatural stuff… So if I weren’t an artist I could have become a special agent or a private eye or something like that, I think my observational skills are quite good.

How do you feel about the London art scene? How different is it from Prague or Bratislava?

No one really cares what you do in a big city like London which could be a good thing because there is much bigger freedom in trying out different things…I like that it is very diverse. Art scenes in Prague and Bratislava are formed of a few groups of people. The art market practically doesn’t exist. I appreciate the non-commercial spirit to it though, there is a smaller competition because there is almost no money in it…we just gather to go to openings and drink and dance afterwards. 

You’re strongly influenced by popular culture. Are there any movies or TV series that really had an impact on you and your work?

I love the X-files, I watch the Walking Dead, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and New Jersey, Teen Mom…I am a big fan of bizarre Slovak reality shows, they’re visually crazy, it’s like an array of farmers, aliens, alcoholics and other freaks.

Are there any recurring stories or motifs in your work?

There was a time when I was interested in the feelings of apathy, boredom, strangeness and awkwardness and in the ways how to depict them. Through the years, my manner and subjects underwent various transformations, most recently my own life and stories from my surroundings come to the thematic foreground. My work always relates to how I feel about life but it is very laboured, I can’t quickly put down ideas, it’s usually more layers and scenes, all my fantasies and fears that build a surrealistic kingdom…maybe so that the whole story is not so easy to read. 

You cite Durer as an influence, and we spotted a distorted skull a la Holbein’s The Ambassadors in your work – these are both great draftsmen. Do you look back into art history a lot? Tell us about the artists or movements you admire.

Naturally I am inclined to artists who deal with similar problems in their work…narration, mythology, irony, realistic tradition, expansiveness, extraordinary choreography of subjects…I look for draftsmanship , a unique style, I like TMI (too much information) in paintings or drawings…complicated scenes so the eye is never allowed to rest..

Durer, Bosch, Picasso, Magritte, Gustave Dore, Lucian Freud, Marcel Dzama, Raymond Pettibon, Charles Burns, George Condo, Grayson Perry, David Shrigley, Tamara de Lempicka, Frida Kahlo, Ed Atkins to name a few..

We often think of drawings as quite self-contained and small, but actually a lot of your work is on a huge scale, more like Renaissance cartoons. Why do you make such big pieces?

Why not? Drawing is just a medium that I use to make pictures.

Drawing is often seen as a precursor to the ‘real’ work – like the cartoons we mentioned, which were drafts for paintings. Obviously for you the drawing is the final piece. How did you end up working in this medium? What was its appeal?

I tried to paint and make sculptures during my studies, but it just didn’t feel right…I think I am simply better at working with lines than with colour.  

Berlin, Bears and Refugees